If there’s an eternal, undeniable truth to pickup and rec-league hoops, it’s this: Schlubs love playing against bona fides.
It’s true, and as a schlub I can speak to this with 100-percent authority. Throughout my lifetime of basketball, I’ve probably played in, oh, 2,000 games. One on one in a driveway. Four on four at the Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware. Asphalt in Urbana, Illinois, nonstop shit-slinging at the downtown Nashville YMCA, a whole lotta mess at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. On and on and on.
Over the course of the decades, I’ve knowingly faced a handful of truly exceptional ballers. Once, when I was maybe 16, I found myself guarding Kevin Houston, who led the nation in scoring with 32.9 ppg at Army in 1986-87. At Delaware, I remember trying to keep up with Taurence Chisholm, the former Blue Hen point guard who—at the time—ranked fourth or fifth in all-time Division I assists. I also played with and against Alain Nana-Sinkam, a pretty strong player at Delaware and Wilmington College.
The point is, I vividly recall my encounters with Houston, Chisholm and Nana-Sinkam. They certainly don’t remember facing me.
Tonight I showed up at the local 24 Hour Fitness itching to play ball. I entered the gym toward the end of a blowout, and when the game ended (score: 15-7) I looked at the other team and thought, “Glub.” They were big. Really big. And young. Really young. Because I was the tallest on my squad, I stepped toward the tallest on the other team’s squad. The kid was about 6-foot-8, and bulky. A guy on my team looked over, probably noticed my age and creaky back and said, “You want me to take him?”—which is a red cape to someone (like myself) who has always loved defense.
“No, I got him,” I said.
“Go fuck yourself,” I thought.
The game began, and I worked hard. The big guy was big. And strong. He wore a grey T-shirt and shorts, and he moved around the court somewhat effortlessly. Because he had a good number of inches on me, he kept posting up inside—and I kept fronting him, trying to persuade the guards to go elsewhere. Which, generally, they did. My guy wound up scoring one basket, and my team somehow won.
Afterward, the kid told me he had committed to attend UT-Arlington. “To play football?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Basketball.”
Of course, when the game ended I did a little Google work and tracked down the incoming UT-Arlington recruiting class. His name is Nick Pallas. He’s a local prospect who was recruited by a bunch of schools. That he will be playing Division I basketball next season made me feel terrific—and I’ll certainly be rooting for the lad’s success. Again, schlubs love playing against bona fides. I had this exact conversation with Jerry Stackhouse on the Jim Rome set a couple of weeks ago. You always wanna drain a three over or box out a legit player. It’s just the truth of the matter.
And here’s the thing: I’m not naive or delusional. Nick Pallas is 100 times better at basketball than I am, and by the time his four or five years in Arlington end, he’ll be 1,000 times better. I’m sure he wasn’t playing his hardest; I’m sure he probably saw the old guy with the fading hairline (and without the fadeaway jumper) and thought, “Meh, I’ll just walk through this one.” Were we to play one on one, he’d destroy me repeatedly. I’m aware of this, and comfortable in this.
But for one night, circumstances be damned, I held my own.
For one night, a schlub did OK.